This article appears in the June 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Just think for a moment about how much the rest of the world loves -- nay, adores -- soccer. In fact,
the global fervor for the game makes America's
passion for the NFL seem quaint. As Bono notes in that ubiquitous World Cup promo that's set to the opening riffs of U2's "Magnificent," the borders
that divide us fade away during this tournament, because soccer is the game that unites.
All true, of course. But the Irish rocker ignored one crucial point about the global game and why
it is worshipped worldwide. In a word, gambling. Across the pond, from England's northern tip to the German Autobahn to the heel of Italy, betting on sports is legal. (Reminder: Nevada is the only
U.S. state in which wagering on every sport is
permitted.) And the sport that punters -- how charming, in Europe they call gamblers punters! -- bet on most is soccer. According to David Williams of British bookmaker Ladbrokes, the largest legal bookmaking operation on the planet, regulated markets alone will see nearly $1.5 billion in
wagers on the World Cup. "In the 2006 World Cup, we had the biggest numbers we had ever seen,
bigger than the Olympics, at about $1.3 billion," Williams says. "Logic would dictate that this
year would be bigger since interest continues to grow, the recession is ending and South Africa is in the same time zone as the European markets." Translation: It's safe to say this year's tournament will be the most bet-upon sporting event ever.